Day 460: The Wizard of Uz

05.04.10:

Today was yet another D-Day in terms of getting visas and getting going.  Within minutes of me wiping the sleep from my eyes I arrived at the Turkmenistan embassy to meet no other than Atabek, my friend from last week who had helped me out with the whole getting-my-Stanistan-visas shenanigans.  Again, the system for getting the visa required me to put my name down on a list and then wait my turn.  While Atabek held my place in the queue I darted over to the Afghan embassy to throw in my second passport for my second Afghan visa (another time-consuming trip to the bank required).  Upon my return, it looked like if I got my passport in this morning, I’d have the visa this afternoon.  Atabek and I waited for a good three hours, but finally – finally – they opened the gate and let us in.

Now there was something I didn’t quite understand about all this: I was told in no uncertain terms that it took up to three weeks to get my Turkmenistan transit visa, and yet, here I was after just one week after my application went in about to be given this coveted sticker in my passport.  I didn’t quite understand why, but hell, I’m not going to start complaining anytime soon.

It was the usual drop off the passport in the morning, pick it up in the afternoon shenanigans and so Atabek and I scooted to get some lunch. While I was stuffing my face with plov or lagman or whatever I asked Atabek what’s with the ultra-fast visa turn around malarkey. Oh that… yeah, I got my family in Turkmenistan to put in a letter of invitation for you.

Just to explain, I had tried to get a Letter of Invitation from the various visa agencies and they all said no, and they all said no for the same reason – Turkmenistan law has it that if you commit a crime in Turkmenistan while you’re there on a transit visa, you AND your ‘sponsor’ go down for it.  Not only had Atabek jumped me into the queue last week, he sped up the application process by a fortnight, placing his family in jeopardy should anything go horribly wrong – all this for a guy he barely knows just so he can get on with his utterly bananas quest to visit every country in the world.  When I said that the people of Central Asia are the most generous, hospitable and earnest on the planet, I wasn’t kidding!

I owe this guy SO MUCH!

After lunch, I picked up my Afghan visa in passport two and then grabbed my Turkmenistan visa in passport one.  Incidentally, they put my visa on the last page of my passport – covering a tiny let’s-waste-an-entire-blank-page-for-no-good-reason code stamp that was put in there when I entered Morocco all those moons ago.  I had done my best Donald-Pleasance-in-The-Great-Escape on it and tried to rub it out with a pencil eraser, thus freeing up a (much needed) extra page of my passport.  I now only have one page that is still blank.

Atabek and I then made plans for getting my ass out of Dodge.  He came with me to the carpool and we sorted me a place in a shared taxi that would be heading out overnight towards the Turkmen border.  Then I had the evening to play with.  I went out for a bite to eat with my French chums, Younne and Cloe, and had one last mosey around the centre of this city whose architecture leave me nonplussed, but whose citizens blow me away.  Later, I managed to say thanks and ta-ra to Rafa before I slunk off into the great beyond.

Back at the carpool, I said my hearty farewells to Atabek, thanking him profusely for all his help.  I clambered into the taxi and headed off into the night, south by south west and straight on till morning.

Day 461: The Forbidden Stan

06.04.10:

Groggy and grumpy I awoke from my nightborn passage through Uzbekistan. Like Alexander The Great so many years before (and Michael Caine and Sean Connery more recently), I was in Samarkand – the legendary and (arguably) most famous city of Central Asia. Stumbling bleary-eyed out of the taxi I lost my phone and before I knew what the hell was going on I had slept-walked into another taxi and was hurling out of town.

Sacrilege, I know. I’m sorry. I’ll tell you a little story: About eight years ago I was travelling through the Andes with an old flame of mine (she’d hate me saying that, but watchagonnado?) and I got increasingly ratty with what I saw as her lack of interest in the soaring grandeur of one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world.

I couldn’t believe somebody would come all this way and then not relish the moment. And here I was, in Gramarkand – a place where history, politics and religion smash together like quarks in a Large Hadron Collider – a place that couldn’t be more – you know, me – and I buzz through it like it’s the suburbs of Milton Keynes.

If I was Tyler Durdan, I’ll so be giving myself a slap around now.

But like the Cylons have a plan, I have an excuse.

It’s not a good one, it’s not even a great one, but an excuse nonetheless. I don’t want to go everywhere… yet. What’s that quote from Die Hard? – “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer”.

Ah, the benefits of a pop-cultured education.

I don’t want there to be no more worlds to conquer. I’ve already been to far too many places for my tender years and I don’t want to ruin the thrill of the new for my future self – I’ve got to leave some stone unturned and Samarkand is going to have to be one of them – hell, it just gives me one more excuse to come back!! And when I do come back I’ll give Samarkand and Khiva a real run for their money. I promise!! But not today.

Today I’ve got Turkmenistan to cross – one of the last great Forbidden Kingdoms of the world, up there with North Korea, Bhutan and Eritrea (still to go, kids!).

I got to the border early enough to make it exceptionally painless. The guys at the border (on both sides) were as jolly as their counterparts on the other side Uzbekistan and I got through with no headaches at all. It goes to show – if you’ve got your paperwork in order, Central Asia is a cinch.

And then I was in Turkmenistan. By the afternoon I had cut through Merv (yes it’s called Merv) on the way to Mary (yes it’s called Mary) and after a rather interesting lunch of Turkmen pie I pressed on to the border with Afghanistan.

I arrived at the tiny little bordertown of Kushka at around 10pm. My friendly taxi driver dropped me off at an unmarked hotel and I tentatively knocked on the door as the taxi sped off into the night. A little old lady answered and explained in her best Turkmen that the hotel was full. I tried to get directions for another hotel, but all she could do was wave her arms in the vague direction from whence I had just come.

Considering her hotel didn’t feel it necessary to put up a sign saying ‘hotel’, I guessed nobody else would bother putting up a sign either and that at this point I was pretty much stuffed. So I drudged off back down the dark deserted road keeping my eye out for anything that even gave the vague impression that I could stay there for the night.

Don’t forget: it’s late, it’s dark, I’m on my own in one of the most isolationist countries in the world, in a town that nobody has ever heard of.

And less than one mile down the road is a sleepy little place called Afghanistan.

Everything was quiet – too damn quiet. There was literally NOBODY around. No cars, no people, no pubs, restaurants, cafes, NOTHING. Not even a street dog barking in the distance. Nada. My buttocks were clenched so tightly it’s a miracle that I could actually walk. As I passed the deserted lock-ups, picking my way over the twisted concrete that blocked the road, a group of three youths swung into view. Now if this was anywhere else, my natural reaction would be to run like a sissy – YES I’VE SEEN HOSTEL.

But if there is one thing I’ve learnt on the road it’s that sometimes you gotta swallow your pride and ask for directions, especially if you have no map, no bearings and utterly no idea where you’re going to sleep.

Luckily one of the lads spoke enough English to understand what I was bleating on about. He said there were no other hotels. Yep, a one horse town alright – and somebody had shot the horse. But then he said it was no worries – I could kip at his. Ah, Central Asians – why can’t the rest of the world be more like you?

So what’s Turkmenistan like? Well I’ll tell you and I’ll be blunt. It’s boring. Possibly the most boring place on the planet – at least Cape Verde has a vibrant crime scene and the odd paedophile to liven things up.

You see this will always be a problem in places in which a bunch of faceless bureaucrats decide what’s good for ya. Top down cities – think of the rampant joylessness of Canberra, Brasilia or Milton Keynes. A place with no nooks and even fewer crannies, a place that people have not built for themselves but has been built for them, the result of which is a characterless vacuum of convenience. Yummy.

Now I know what I’m saying flies in the face of my warm regard for Uzbekistan, Tashkent being about as charming as a flaming bag of poo that’s been left on your doorstep by mischievous scallywags. But that was my point – the people of Uzbekistan won me over despite their country’s charmless architecture and diabolical government.

The only thing Turkmenistan has got going for it is as a curio; like a traffic warden with six fingers. What makes it worth a visit is to clamp eyes on one of the (many) hilarious statues of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka ‘Turkmenbashi’, the first president of independent Turkmenistan (1991-2006); and by all accounts, an UTTER NUTCASE.

Seriously – he renamed the month of April after his mum, demanded that an ice palace be built in Ashgabat, the capital city (even though Ashgabat is pretty much in the middle of a desert) and in 2004 he banned long hair and beards (I would have been stuffed) along with gold teeth (which are incredibly and terrifyingly popular around these parts). He also changed the words of the national anthem so it was all about him, banned news reporters from wearing make up and instituted a bank holiday called Melon Day. NO I’M NOT MAKING THIS STUFF UP.

One good thing he did was make lip syncing at public concerts illegal. Seriously.

But his biggest and most lasting legacy was his fondness for unveiling golden statues of himself. Having seen some up close, I’m happy to report that they look like oversized Kenner toys dipped in gold. My only regret is that I didn’t get to see the big daddy of the golden Turkmenbashis – the one atop the ‘Arch of Neutrality’ in Ashgabat. Arms aloft, it rotates to follow the sun. Or rather, the sun rotates to follow Turkmenbashi.